SALEM — A lawyer for a Danvers teenager accused in the 2013 rape and murder of his high school math teacher asked Tuesday that the trial be moved from Essex County, contending that a “perfect storm” of factors has made it impossible to pick an impartial jury.
Defense attorney Denise Regan wants a jury in Hampden or Berkshire County to decide the fate of Philip D. Chism, 16, whose trial is scheduled for October.
Prosecutors allege Chism slashed the throat of Danvers High School math teacher Colleen Ritzer, 24, in a school bathroom on Oct. 22, 2013, when he was 14. He is also accused of sexually assaulting her. Chism has pleaded not guilty.
Judge David A. Lowy did not immediately rule on the request after a hearing in Essex Superior Court. Chism attended but did not speak.
Regan said widespread news coverage of the inflammatory details of the allegations, the community’s tributes to Ritzer, and Chism’s statements to police have tainted the pool to the extent that potential jurors in Essex County should be presumed to be prejudiced against the teenager.
In particular, she cited extensive news reports about events honoring Ritzer and coverage of several court hearings in which the defense sought to have some evidence and statements, including a confession that Chism allegedly made, thrown out.
“It’s important to make sure . . . the defendant has a fair trial that appears fair and is in fact fair and it’s a matter of degree,” Regan said. “Every step you get away from Essex County, I would suggest, there’s a better chance of having a fair and impartial jury.”
Lowy said he did not plan to declare the Essex jury pool presumed to be prejudiced against Chism — a finding that has never been made in Massachusetts. Still, the judge said, he has the authority to move the trial.
Assistant Essex District Attorney Kate MacDougall said the trial should stay in Essex County, where the jury pool is larger than in Hampden or Berkshire counties.
She said Regan overstated the impact of the media’s reporting on Chism’s confession on potential jurors and pushed back against the defense’s description of the facts as “shocking and repellent.”
Those facts, MacDougall said, have been reported accurately and, in the case of the rape allegations, with restraint. She pointed out that a jury will hear them wherever Chism is tried.
“The nature of the most egregious and shocking and repellant facts in this case is such that they have been virtually unreportable except in a very limited nature because they can’t appear in a newspaper or on the news,” MacDougall said.
Lowy granted a defense request to hold off his decision until he receives a report from Regan on how much news coverage was generated by Tuesday’s court hearing and an upcoming decision by the Supreme Judicial Court related to Chism’s case.
In the matter before the SJC, Justice Fernande R.V. Duffly is expected to impound a video recording and transcript of statements Chism made to police in Danvers as they searched for Ritzer during the early morning hours of Oct. 23, 2013, until Chism’s trial is over, the defense and prosecution said.
Lowy ruled in March that those statements could not be presented to a jury. The next hearing will be on July 17.Laura Crimaldi can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @lauracrimaldi.